Nationality: American. Born: Margaret Brooke Sullavan in Norfolk, Virginia, 16 May 1911. Education: Attended Chatham Episcopal Institute; Sullins College, Bristol, Virginia; E. E. Clive Dramatic School, Boston. Family: Married 1) the actor Henry Fonda, 1931 (divorced 1933); 2) the director William Wyler, 1934 (divorced 1936); 3) the agent Leland Hayward, 1936 (divorced 1948), daughter: Brooke; 4) Kenneth Wagg, 1950. Career: Late 1920s—joined Joshua Logan's University Players in West Falmouth, Massachusetts; 1931—Broadway debut in The Modern Virgin ; 1933—contract with Universal: film debut in Only Yesterday , 1934; 1938—contract with MGM; 1943—on Broadway in The Voice of the Turtle ; late 1940s—increasing deafness; 1952—in stage play Sabrina . Awards: Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Three Comrades , 1938. Died: 1 January 1960.
Only Yesterday (Stahl) (as Mary Lane); Little Man, What Now? (Borzage) (as Lammchen Pinneberg)
The Good Fairy (Wyler) (as Luisa Ginglebusher); So Red the Rose (Vidor) (as Vallette Bedford)
The Next Time We Love (Edward Griffith) (as Cicely Tyler); The Moon's Our Home (Seiter) (as Cherry Chester)
Three Comrades (Borzage) (as Patricia Hollman); The Shopworn Angel (Potter) (as Daisy Heath)
The Shop around the Corner (Lubitsch) (as Klara Novak); The Mortal Storm (Borzage) (as Freya Roth)
So Ends Our Night (Cromwell) (as Ruth Holland); Back Street (Stevenson) (as Ray Smith); Appointment for Love (Seiter) (as Jane Alexander)
Cry Havoc (Thorpe) (as Lt. Smith)
No Sad Songs for Me (Maté) (as Mary Scott)
"The Making of a Movie Star," in American Magazine , May 1934.
Borrows, Michael, Patricia Neal and Margaret Sullavan , St. Austell, Cornwall, 1971.
Quirk, Lawrence J., Margaret Sullavan: Child of Fate , New York, 1986.
Current Biography 1944 , New York, 1944.
Obituary in New York Times , 2 January 1960.
Jacobs, J., "Margaret Sullavan," in Films in Review (New York), April 1960.
Sarris, Andrew, "Reflections on Margaret Sullavan," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1977.
Babener, L., "Haywire in Hollywood: Girlhood Memories by Movieland Daughters," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington), Winter 1989.
Landrot, Marine, "Chére inconnue," in Télérama (Paris), 15 Decem-ber 1993.
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Margaret Sullavan's personal independence characterized her life on and off screen. Her reluctance to bind herself to a movie star's contract resulted in a relatively limited number of films. Nevertheless, she established a strongly identifiable persona of individuality and courage amid suffering. She used her naturally pensive appearance and husky, breathless voice as means of characterizing women who were often doomed but confronted their fate with spirit.
The majority of Sullavan's films were melodramas in which her characters faced adversity in the form of poverty, sickness, hopeless romance, political oppression, and, often, death. But even in comedies she projected an air of underlying sadness. When the correspondent never shows up for their first meeting in The Shop around the Corner , for example, she wears her disappointment with the same resigned but indomitable acceptance that she does facing serious illness in Three Comrades or sitting alone on New Year's Eve waiting for her married lover in Back Street .
There was often an otherworldly quality to Sullavan's characters, roles that called for idealism and principle. Her hair was frequently lighted to make it shine, accentuating the angelic way in which her characters accepted their fate. As the mother in Little Man, What Now? she makes the birth of her son akin to the Nativity. And those films that call for her character to die seem the fulfillment of her tragic spirit, for the films suggest that her characters are not limited by mortality. In The Mortal Storm Freya is killed as she and Martin (James Stewart) are escaping from Nazi Germany, but Stewart nevertheless carries her body to freedom. The memory of her goodness seems to influence her Nazi brother (Robert Stack) to reconsider his commitment to evil. Her final role, in No Sad Songs for Me , is perhaps the quintessence of her persona. Told that she is dying, she ingratiates her husband and daughter with another woman, one who can take her place when she is gone.
A sense of self-sacrificing concern was combined with a unique presence, submissive yet strong, smiling but mournful, courageous though doubtful, that made Margaret Sullavan's characters, paradoxically, vulnerable while living—and dying—heroically.